We, the British – stoic in our sensibilities, steadfast in our sentiments, and famously stiff in our collective upper lip; our tears seldom shed, our smiles seldom seen, our heads often shaken.
Even whilst sharing a mutual objective, the motive of the Englishman is varied and many. I see it in their eyes. I hear it in their sighs. But none of this matters.
Ultimately, we are gathered here today to serve one extraordinary purpose – to save lives.
I am late. Hesitantly, as is my nature, I enter the Church Center and navigate my way to the first nurse. She asks if I’ve brought any paperwork. I have. She asks me to go to the waiting room. I do.
Time temporarily stops, my eyes glaze over and I stare straight through the nurse in to the blood farm behind. Blue uniforms swim through the aisles between the beds like sharks having caught the scent of blood. Cacophonous alarms signify the conclusion of each harvest, and dry zombie donors drift like spectres around the demure religious hall.
Briefly, my mind teeters on the brink of the Thanatopsical. Is this place to be my tomb?
Any sepulchral ambiance is quickly dispelled by an overwhelming unease as I enter the waiting room and am met by a pansophy beyond my understanding.
Encircling the room like serried suids awaiting slaughter, my fellow donors study my shambling lack of savoir-faire. Every seat in the enclosure is taken and I am forced to shuffle awkwardly around a small table near the entrance and take my seat at a piano stool, half sheltered by a wooden screen. As I glance around for a familiar face or a frame of reference, they stare back with askance. I am an outsider. We are all outsiders here.
Given the heroic circumstances one would imagine a mild sense of euphoria may be apparent. Not so. This is England, remember. I was not expecting fireworks. Though I was expecting more than a deafening silence. We sit not as if we are here to save lives, but we are to have them snatched from us, as if we wait in an oncology department each expecting bad news.
In Britain strangers are strictly forbidden from vocal communication. The only people comfortable enough to elicit the use of their larynx for anything other than the clearing of their throat are a father and son sat opposite.
Whispering to each other, they sporadically erupt in suppressed fits of laughter. Single source laughter in an otherwise silent room is guaranteed to cause anxiety. They’re laughing at me. I was the last one in. They must be laughing at me. What’s funny? Did I do something wrong? Oh God, I’m bleeding already aren’t I?
In front of me is a table, atop it an unkept pile of glossy magazines. Nobody will touch them, because to stand, approach and retrieve is to be considered “making a show”.
To reduce the risk of feeling faint I have been instructed to drink a pint of water in the waiting room. I did not do this upon entry. I have to get off my seat. I have to make a show.
This country is a chess match, each citizen a twitching symbol of stoicism anxiously awaiting the movement of the next, because this allows him assume the moral advantage and to judge his peers and their actions. This is the reason all windows remained closed on British public transport. Despite the unanimous desire for them to be open, nobody dare risk being branded that guy. In Britain, doing anything at all will have you branded that guy.
Still, I have to drink this water. My orders were issued by a higher power – the nurses. In a false attempt to find something I continuously zip and unzip my bag, killing a few precious minutes and allowing me to summon the courage to stand up, and move less than a metre from where I sit. I am pathetic. Finally, I pick up a clear plastic pint glass from the table, stand and reposition myself in front of the tabletop water tank.
No sooner does precious H2O relieve my tension and my thirst, than a nurse enters the room and calls my name. Wrongly I might add. I am quite used to this.
As I leave the room I tumble deep in to infernal depths, Mephisto’s hall of fame. For I feel a burning heat from my fellow donors’ eyes, and it sets my soul on fire. The ashes of my bones cascade across the room, blown by the sighs of the silently scorned. This is the penalty for queue jumping in Britain.
You see, I had pre-booked my appointment in advance of this day. In combination with my late arrival this meant I was the last to enter this room and one of the first to leave. My fellow donors are unaware of my organisational skills. Am I receiving preferential treatment? What have I done to deserve this? All these thoughts and more swirl through the room forming a hurricane of Hellish contempt. It’s all for me.
There is nothing Britain hates more than a queue-jumper.
Having left the waiting room I am questioned by nurses regarding my paperwork. They test my iron levels. They are very high. They ask about my previous operations, my tattoo and my recent trips abroad. These are fine too. I am released in to another holding pen where I engage in phatic conversation with some other donors as I await my fate, the needle.
From my seat I watch as everyone rushes back to work, to their lives. They are too uptight to revel in the novelty of massive blood loss. Or maybe, unlike me, they are shackled by the tyranny of genuine commitment. Or perhaps, unlike me, the novelty of haemorrhaging has simply faded. I am the youngest person here, the rest may have been giving up their time and their haemoglobin for years. Bleeding is only so fun for so long. But bleed I do.
My arm accepts the needle. A stranger will accept my blood.
The donation process was wonderful. The nurses were not like sharks, but attentive mother hens. They offer constant reassurance to everyone, particularly the first-time donors like me.
It feels good. But this much I knew; it is no great revelation. The real surprise is the discovery that never has the spirit of what it means to be British been captured more accurately than in the blood donor waiting room.
Article first published as Blood – A Quintessentially British Experience on Technorati.